The morning of the 6th December 2016, I was tucked up in bed, considering the day ahead, when I got a text from Dave. Before I could formulate a coherent reply (remember mornings are not my strength), he rang me with worrying news.
DEFRA (the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) issued a declaration, effective immediately regarding the outbreak of a strain of avian flu (H5N8) on the continent. In order to protect poultry flocks in the UK from the virus, everyone with poultry, whatever the size of flock, were advised to keep their birds indoors or take measures to cover their outdoor enclosures to limit their contact with any wild birds that may be carrying or infected. The original housing order was well-worded and encouraged poultry owners to be sensible about their flocks' housing arrangement.
Z immediately suggested I move my velociraptors into her greenhouse that's standing empty until seed planting time. This I did. My flock had been in for a couple of days already with the foul weather and were glad to stretch out and explore their new accommodation. Unfortunately, their pleasure lasted until the evening of that day, when they waited patiently for me to come and get them to take them home. They were unimpressed when they had to sleep there and the next morning made their displeasure known. They spent a less than happy fortnight there. It got to the stage where they were so pissed off with me, they stopped laying, ran away when they saw me, and then went off their food.
After my adventures with red mite over the summer, I had intended to upgrade their housing in the spring anyway. I'd had my eye on a plastic coop that would cope with being flushed and scrubbed within an inch of its life once a week. Despite Z's assurances that they would eat and they would forgive me (eventually), I changed my plan and ordered their new home. I missed them so much. I hated that they were unhappy and weren't in the garden milling around and making noise. The decision made, I placed the order, then fetched my flock home. They spent a couple of days in my greenhouse.
I can't tell you how good it was to have them back. We immediately made friends again...until 3.15 the next morning. When they first stayed in the greenhouse, they were little and Jenga hadn't started crowing. During the summer, when Dave was convalescing here, he used a small, hand-held noise monitor to discover that Jenga giving it large was 86 decibels per crow, enough to have the local council slap an ASBO (anti-social behavioural order) on him.
Jenga is an early riser. He wakes up, has a stretch and calls for the sun five or six times in row, then he rests for about half an hour or so and has another go. I was unimpressed. The next morning he was more considerate and toned it down a bit. I was grateful, but still considered getting ear plugs.
Happily, their new Eglu Go Up! arrived. By the way, if ever you wonder why I adore Dave to the extent I do...he put the various bits that arrived in five different boxes, without violence to my person. There was quite a lot of muttering under his breath but frankly, considering the complete nightmare of flat pack assembly, he was very reserved.
I see flat pack instructions and they immediately translate themselves into Mandarin or Malay. I can't do it. If someone shows me how to put it together, I am perfectly capable of copying them, but to do it cold...bad things tend to happen. Dave is really good at translating written instructions for me and I'm very good at getting the different bits together and passing the right tool at the right time. I am also brilliant at getting out the way at the part where something needs hitting with a bigger hammer and making tea. I'm also brilliant at plastering up gouged, sliced and hurty bits.
Dave surveying the results of his hard work
Their Eglu comes with wheels, so we can move it around the grass every few days to protect the garden and give them something new to nibble. Chickens love their greens. It's a brilliant coop. Big enough that they can have space to move around, their sleeping quarters has ingenious doors which once they're tucked in at night, are predator proof.
My velociraptors are happier and that's all that matters. (You'll notice I said "ier").
Chickens checking out their new feeders
As far as avian flu is concerned, I think the measures are reasonable considering the risk to poultry. Not long after the poultry housing order was issued, a farm in North Lincolnshire lost 5,000 turkeys to the wretched virus. Those birds that hadn't succumbed had to be culled. It must have been awful for the farmers. I'm sure there is financial support, but even so; to lose 5,000 birds that's terrible. After that, there were a couple of cases in Devon and Scotland, but when a backyard flock in Wales came down with it, I knew my flock would be in for the duration.
This week, DEFRA announced the extension of the housing order until the end of February. Dave was increasingly uncomfortable with just the top being covered over and so yesterday we covered over the run completely. As it is, my flock don't mind, it keeps the wind off of them.
This summer, I'd gotten into the habit of feeding the multitudes of birds that live around here. I started with fat balls on the damson tree, then peanuts, fat slabs on the lilac and then sunflower seeds on the cherry tree. Then the local pheasants figured out that I shook out the chickens' feeder every day and started visiting regularly. A pheasant in a cherry tree eating sunflower seeds out of a feeder meant for finches is quite a sight. I started throwing an extra handful of food out for them.
Given DEFRA's guidelines are to limit wild birds mingling with kept, I had to change the arrangements. The feeders have been moved to a tree outside of my garden, in Z's orchard and I started feeding the pheasants under the hedge opposite my kitchen window. When we asked people who knew about such things, they felt it was better to keep the wild birds well fed, to ensure they were robust enough to fight off any infection. The only problem has been that word got around and I've gone from feeding maybe four or five pheasant hens to ten or eleven hens and two or three cocks!
I now have inside pets, garden pets and outside pets. And they all make out that I don't care and never feed them! If I'm late with the pheasants' breakfast they mill around staring pointedly at me from under the hedge. When I call they come running as fast as their legs can carry them. I adore them so much. I'm so pleased no one is allowed to shoot them on Z's land. They're so sweet.
All in all, things have settled down and we're just waiting it out. Some people have suggested that DEFRA have been over-enthusiastic with their reaction. I disagree. Given that many peoples' livelihood depends on their poultry, anything that can be done to mitigate the cross-infection, is wise. Also, I'd be heartbroken if my flock took ill. They're my pets and I love them to bits. Hopefully, this is all there will be of this and we won't have to speak of it again.